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A Look at the Popularity of Horse Racing in the United States
Credit: Ernie Belmonte

A Look at the Popularity of Horse Racing in the United States

Horse racing is one of the oldest sports around, and America is believed to have tasted its first piece of the action as far back as the 17th century. The first racetrack is said to have appeared in the US in Long Island, in 1665. 

Later, the disruptive forces of war would cause horse racing to disappear — which would become something of a familiar story — until the Industrial Revolution came along, facilitating horse racing again. There were thought to have been as many as 314 horse racing tracks in the USA by 1890. 

Anti-gambling attitudes in the early 20th century caused a devasting blow to horse racing, and the sport nearly died again. When the authorities smiled kindly upon pari-mutel betting, however, horse racing returned… only for World War II to create more upheaval and put an end to horse racing. The sport didn’t return to its former glory until around the 1970s, and today, America hosts such prestigious races as the Belmont Stakes and the Kentucky Derby

This post takes a closer look at the popularity of horse racing in the US and at the relationship between the sport and betting on it, and how betting impacts the sport.

The popularity of horse racing in the US

For all the excitement and entertainment horse racing offers, horse racing in the United States endures mixed fortunes when it comes to the popularity of the sport. This is partly because it’s a little less mainstream than the country’s major sports such as baseball, basketball and, of course, NFL football, and relies on the same fan base.

Stats from the consumer and market data company Statista, which has taken a look at the size of the racing track industry, suggest horse racing in the country may be going through a rough period. Data from 2020 shows the market value to be around $3 billion, whereas in the previous year this was around $5 billion. Experts have predicted the sector will reach a value of around $3.52 billion in 2021, so maybe horse racing could be about to bounce back.

Worries in the industry

Events such as the Kentucky Derby place horse racing in the spotlight and generate a buzz around the sport that it would like to receive more. Every now and then, a super horse such as American Pharoah — which enjoys the same prestige as the much-loved and prolific British horse Red Rum — lands on the scene and boosts the sport’s popularity.

However, issues around regulation are causing dismay in the horse racing world. The sport is subject to lots of different jurisdictions, and some feel the state-by-state nature of regulation is preventing states from all being on the same page, holding the sport back. 

Issues such as drug testing and the retirement of horses to breed after hitting the headlines are other issues that have created squabbling in the sport and triggered calls for more centralised regulation. At the same time, however, the creation of a central body to oversee the sport has been seen as unrealistic.

Not everyone feels the sport’s day are numbered, however. Not by a long shot. Despite some of the losses the sport has suffered to other forms of gambling and entertainments, others have argued there’s plenty of life in it yet. They’ve cited online betting and the push for tourism, in which fans can visit farms where retired horses breed, as opportunities for horse racing to continue to hold its own. Speaking of betting…. 

Horse racing and betting

The relationship between horse racing and betting has long been fruitful. Some people attend horse races purely to bet on them. 

In spite of some of the difficulties horse racing is facing, technology and different ways to bet can help horse racing to endear itself to the public again. Tech has changed the way that people engage with horse racing, and those who can’t visit the racetracks can turn to the services of an online sportsbook to place any bets they wish to make. Online sportsbooks offer fans who like a flutter a great deal of convenience, allowing them to put bets on whenever they wish, rather than just when the doors of a betting shop or the gates of a racecourse open. Check out all sportsbooks including DraftKings, FanDuel and betMGM as some of them do not yet offer horse racing betting. 

Racecourses themselves are also doing their bit to ensure not just the survival of the sport, but also its growth. They’re taking on the casinos by creating on-site casinos at the course, transforming them into “racinos.” Fans of the wider gaming scene can indulge in the best of both worlds and spend some time at the slots or, at some racinos, in games of poker, blackjack or other classic casino games. 

This isn’t the only potential growth strategy. Discussions have been taking place around changing the style of betting on horse races to foster the growth of sports betting and, by extension, of the sport. A switch to “fixed odds” betting would provide more betting freedom and flexibility, allowing punters to bet on different aspects or outcomes, much like when betting on teams. The pari-mutuel model is more restrictive in terms of the options available to bettors. 

Horse racing has been around for a long time and experienced some real ups and downs. The sport may be facing one or two battles just now, but the concept of betting on horse racing creates lots of different options that can help the industry to keep persevering through setbacks and grow.

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